6/30/2011 11:20:00 pm

Why plant a Church? Don't we have enough?

Posted by Tom French |

This is part two of a series I started back in September. Go here to see part one.

The most common objection that I get to church planting goes something like this “We have plenty of empty and struggling churches, why not help them grow, rather than use all these resources to start a new one?” or more succinctly “We have plenty of churches, why do we need new ones?”

This is a perfectly reasonable assumption to make. If it ain’t broke why fix it? Or perhaps, if it’s repairable why replace it? Making new churches seems to be an indictment of current churches and just abandoning them to their fate.

All that in mind, I obviously feel like there are good answers to these objections. So I’ll go through a few reasons why I think it’s a good idea to plant new churches even though there are plenty of churches around already.

Evangelism

The first and most important reason, in my mind, is evangelism. New churches are one of the best ways of doing evangelism around. In fact if you do any reading about church planting you’ll soon come across this quote by missiologist C Peter Wagner: “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven” (Keller quotes him here). Now I don’t really know who C Peter Wager is but everyone quotes him, so I figure he probably knows what he's talking about.

It is my firm belief that one of the central roles of the church is to be bringing people to a saving knowledge of Jesus so they might become his committed disciples (e.g. Matt 28:18-19) . Anything that helps the church do that, is good. Church planting is effective in this mission.

The NCLS (including everyone’s favourite NCLSer Keith Castle) did a study on church planting in Australia in 2003. They found that church plants had an average of 16% of their congregation who were newcomers as opposed to normal churches which had an average of 10% newcomers.

To quote Castle and his friend Bellamy, “Church plants tend to have above average levels of vitality, including higher percentages of attenders valuing the outreach emphasis of the church, higher percentages of attenders inviting others to church, and higher levels of belonging and commitment to the vision and directions of the church.” (You can read the whole thing here.)

Church plants are better for evangelism. I think this is because a church plant has to do evangelism to survive. I also think it’s because church plants, when formed for the right reasons, exist to evangelise, they are started so that people meet Jesus, and they haven’t had a chance to go off mission yet.

Established churches, from what I can see, often suffer from the need to tend to their current attendees rather than those outside the church. Churches, if they aren’t careful, default to work to serve the needs and desires of those who attend rather than those who are beyond it's walls.

A church plant is able to avoid this, at least in it’s early days, because it has no congregation, no tradition, no established way of doing things, and no institutions to uphold. A church plant, if it wants to, can focus its energies on the great commission of Jesus.

Now that’s not to say that an existing church can’t do the same. And there are plenty of churches that are doing that, though most of them aren’t the empty, struggling churches. And if you want to get a struggling church to reorient its energies towards evangelism, it’s going to take a whole lot more work than starting a new church. It’s harder to turn a stationary ship, than launch a stationary row boat.

Church plants evangelise, so I’m keen to plant a church.

Population Growth

“We have enough churches already.” It seems like a far enough statement, so why start a new church?

However if we have enough churches this year, if we don’t start new churches, then we won’t have enough churches next year.

Australia’s population is currently growing at about 2% per year. In the 2001 NCLS they surveyed 7000 churches. Now I’m assuming there are more churches than that in Australia because they didn’t all participate. But lets just say that there are 7000 churches in Australia right now. If the church keeps up with population growth of Australia, then next year we should have 7140 churches. And the year after 7,282 churches. In ten years we should have 8,532 churches. Now no one is expecting that to happen. There aren’t going to be 1,500 churches planted in Australia in the next 10 years. There’s a chance the rate that we are planting churches won’t even keep up with the rate that we are closing churches. Which means that not only are we not keeping up with population growth, we may not even be maintaining our current size.

If we didn’t plant new churches, ideally churches in Australia would grow by 2% a year, but church attendance isn’t growing in Australia, it’s shrinking. So current churches aren’t keeping up. If church plants are better at evangelism and are more likely to be growing than established churches, then why not plant new churches?

Ideally we wouldn’t be content to just keep up with population growth. If we really do believe that Jesus is the hope of the world, and that he is calling all people to himself, then we’ll not only be planting churches for 2% growth rate we’ll be planting churches and seeking to reach unreached people until all of Australia has put their trust in Jesus. And that eventuality is probably a long way off.

Bad Use of Resources

“There are so many empty seats in current churches, why not try and fill them?”

The thinking behind this statement seems to be saying, there are so many resources in the established church not being used, we should be using them, not just making more seats to fill.

The problem I see with this thinking, is that it seems to assume that it’s more important to put people in empty churches than to be finding the best way to bring people to Jesus. If the best way to bring people to Jesus is to fill empty churches, then we should do it. But chances are, it’s not. The great tragedy of the empty church is not the unused resources, but the unreached people.

Now I would love to see empty churches full. I would love to see them full of people who love Jesus, who love the people around them and love the world they live in. And while I go to a church with empty seats in it (and there are plenty of empty seats in my church) I’ll do my best to fill them with people meeting Jesus, and people loving Jesus. But wherever I am, I’m going work to help people meet Jesus rather than get people to fill seats.

I’d rather waste a million dollars to save one person, than save a million dollars and lose one person.

Perhaps people aren’t concerned about the churches resources, but that’s what I hear when people start talking about empty seats and empty buildings.

New Churches Means New Ways of Doing Church

Starting a new church means they can do whatever they want to reach people with the gospel. There are lots of people who will not interact with established churches, they won’t step into a church building, and they see the church as completely irrelevant to them.

However, there may be a church planter out there who is planning exactly the kind of church that will speak to their needs and present the gospel in a way that is meaningful to them.

During the summit I heard about and met people who were doing church in all sorts of ways. Church in the pub, cafes that are churches, church that happens over a meal, church that happens with 6 people and church that happens with 600, church for artists, church for families, church for professionals, church for shift workers, church for retirees. People were thinking about all sorts of different ways to bring the gospel to people who haven’t yet heard it or responded to it. How many people will these churches reach who would never have been reached by churches that currently exist? It’s worth doing our best to reach whoever we can, whatever way we can.

New Churches Invigorate Old Churches

When new churches start, it’s good for the established churches. When a church gets to send people out to start a new church they get to participate in the mission of bringing people to Jesus. I may have said that it’s hard for established churches to be doing evangelism, but if churches plant churches, they’re doing evangelism. What better way for a church to reach more people than to send out people to reach more people? When a church plants churches, if done right, it can fill the church with energy and purpose. When a church exists to make more churches people can clearly see how they are growing and changing lives. They get to do evangelism in their church and support evangelism in the churches they’ve planted. It’s a double blessing! When people leave a church to start a new one, it allows the planting church to fill their place with more people who can be supporting the church plant and with more people who can one day go out and plant their own church. Church plants shouldn’t threaten established churches, but excite them as a chance to support new gospel work.

I'm thankful that my current churches leadership feels just this way about planting churches. They're keen and I'm keen.

Church planting is good for the gospel and good for the established church.


So there are my reasons for planting churches even though we currently have lots of churches.

Having said all that, I want to stress, I don’t think established churches are a lost cause. They’re not by any means. I love the established church. I’ve spent all my life in established churches. I don’t think established churches are ineffective. I’ve seen people saved, lives changed, and much love given and received in established churches. The vast majority of the ministry I’ve done in my life is in the context of established churches.

In the end for me, the reason for starting a new church isn’t really about any of the above arguments (though they all help), but it’s about obedience. Like I said before, I’ve been called to plant a new church, and so I will. Were I called to go to a big, vibrant, growing church, I would. Were I called to go to a small, struggling church, I would. God can work, will work, and is working in all kinds of churches, young, old, big, small, growing, shrinking, conservative, liberal and everything in between. So I’m trusting God to work in this church I’m planting, and I’m trusting him to work in yours. He’s a good God and he’ll reach all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. And that’s pretty good.

Finally I think it’s worth saying that all churches were once church plants. If you go to church, there was a point in time where someone said about your church “I’m going to plant a church.” And chances are there was someone who said to that person “What do we need a new church for, we already have enough churches.” But they did it anyway. And now your life has been changed because they saw the need for more churches. The churches that are planted today will be the established churches tomorrow and people will leave them to plant new ones. It’s my hope that the church that I have the privilege of planting with a whole bunch wonderful people, will be sending people out to keep planting churches and keep finding new ways to bring the love of Jesus to bear in this world that desperately needs him.

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